How to Make Gnocchi
James Berman CCI
Gnocchi (naw’kee, if you are from the city; nyo’kee if you are from Italy; yawn’kee if you are Italo-American) are dumplings most commonly of potato construct, served much like pasta and dubious, at best, to make without practice. The technique to create fool-proof gnocchi is not terribly thorny; rather these little puffs are just a trying bunch. Once the formula is refined, the light shines through and gnocchi success can be had.
I have made a lot of really bad gnocchi; from gummy, sticky, indigestion-inducing bullets of rubber spatula-like dough to mushy, water-logged puddles of albino slop and many lesser known catastrophes in between. The crevices of culinary alchemy are deep and filled with many a pot of starchy water. Potatoes too wet, dough overworked, dough underworked, dumpling overcooked, dough undercooked, almost seems too much effort for the finished product, the juice not being worth the proverbial squeeze. Or not.
The timeline of gnocchi, like many dumplings, is colored with hearsay and speculation. Without too much misinformation, let’s agree that the Italians latched onto the potato and made the potato gnocchi their own. In essence, gnocchi are potatoes, a trace amount of flour, eggs and salt. The simplicity of the ingredients is masked by the soigné of the hand that plies the technique. Think… pasta; a few ingredients of humble origins, muddled and mounded into its own food group. Bread, too. Given the well-rehearsed technique, the resulting spell can be pure magic. Or wretched evil sorcery.
Like any hack wannabe food writer, I did some research on the topic before I subjected you to this rambling. What I found this time surprised me more than the usual flood of opinion on a particular topic. There is almost no consensus on anything relating to the finished dish. No agreement on the type of potato to employ, no agreement on the amount or even type of flour to use, assembly or cook time. While one respectable cook/author plugs for a highly mealy potato, on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, the author/cook immediately located to the left hypes the waxier specimens. My call? Starchy. The structure of the finished product is far superior than with a waxy potato. So, demystification #1: go with the russet.
Equally frustrating (and perplexing) is the lack of agreement on the better method of which to cook the potatoes, boil or bake. I long, long (too long to admit to you, dear reader) have simmered the potatoes in salted water to construct the gnocchi. Moisture is the formidable and sworn enemy of good gnocchi. This nemesis needs to be addressed as the flour added to the dough makes for tough results. Moisture must be absorbed or the gnocchi disintegrate. So, flour is added to wick up the humidity. Too much – a texture similar to set-up window caulking or a super ball. The classic conundrum. But, not really. Start with dried potatoes and the need for extra absorbency becomes moot. The answer? Demystification #2: Bake the potatoes. Dry heat cooking method all but removes too-wet potatoes from the equation. Appears to be an obvious resolve, but is very rarely mentioned.
We have collected the correct potato and the better way to prepare said tuber. After cooking, there are still variables to get the gnocchi we want. The potatoes will need to be worked into a dough. To get to the dough stage, the potatoes need to be processed. Again, there is conflict as to how to get the potatoes dough-ready. One, very public cooking figure that spends too much time rather erotically massaging oil into a leg of lamb, says to mash the potatoes. Others use a ricer or pasatutto to press the potatoes into service. The object is to get the potatoes into a state that is workable and most effective to become a delicate element for the finished product. Demystification #3: Pass the potatoes through a pasatutto to get the two-fold effect of aerating the potatoes as well as providing additional surface area to release moisture.
All the potato variables removed, to complete the dough we need to examine the flour. Alas, more consternation. Bread flour. All-purpose. Cake flour. Bread flour makes sense, as the higher protein in the hard flour will hold onto more moisture. Then again, the protein mesh might make for a tough dumpling. So, cake flour, lower moisture capturing ability but more tender of a gnocchi. Gah! Demystification #4: Use trusty all-purpose flour. All-purpose will bring the right amount of protein development to the dish. Light has been shed, let’s build.
1 ½ pounds, russet potatoes
1 large egg, beaten
3/4 cup, all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons, salt plus more salt for the water
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the potatoes until yielding to the touch. Remove and carefully peel. Rice the potatoes using a pasatutto or ricer.
Allow the potatoes to cool slightly.
Stir egg into the potatoes in a bowl. Fold in flour and salt and combine until mixture until it looks like dough.
Turn out onto a lightly floured counter and knead no more than a minute.
Divide the dough into 6 to 8 strands, about 1/2" thick rope and cut into 3/4" pieces.
Roll the pieces on a gnocchi board or on the obverse side of a fork.
Transfer the shaped gnocchi to a sheet tray lined with fine cornmeal.
Cook in salted water until tender but not mush, about 1 ½ to 2 minutes. Remove and sauce. Shaped gnocchi can also be frozen and stored for later use.
The gnocchi should be airy, tender and flavorful. They can be sauced simply, perhaps with some fresh sage and brown butter (a classic!) all the way to baked with tomato sauce and cheese or even as the starch component in a braised beef or veal dish.
To make the gnocchi dilemma even more migraine-inducing, these little dumplings do not need potatoes at all. Ricotta cheese, spinach, or even just flour alone can play the focal point of the gnocchi. But that, friends, is a mystery for another episode.